BONAIRE, DUTCH WEST INDIES -- Almost nothing grows on this small Caribbean island except goats and flamingos. And little is manufactured but salt.

Bonaire looks barren at first glance, at least until your glance focuses on the bright blue sea, where the busy population of fish establishes this island as an underwater mecca. Divers and snorkelers rate it as one of the best destinations anywhere.

With such a forbidding surface, however, Bonaire remains a sleepy little resort among the Caribbean jet-set islands, despite wildlife so exotic that parrots play tag along roadsides and parrotfish become commonplace to even the most timid snorkelers. The casino inhabitants at the Flamingo Beach Hotel -- one of the two resort-style hotels on the island -- were reduced to watching television one evening when I looked in.

There are hardly two dozen restaurants here. At least three of them are Chinese restaurants with long menus that intermingle Indonesian satays with conch chow mein, chicharron chicken and a mysterious dish called simply Chinese Food. Nearly every Chinese dish I saw was served with both rice and french fries.

As for the restaurants serving local food, they are usually called Snack Bars. Their menus consist of stewed goat, stewed conch, goat soup, and sometimes chicken or fried fish. There is likely to be a warming box stacked with empanadas, croquettes and Indonesian egg rolls -- loempia -- which all taste as if they came from the same factory. In the fancier restaurants -- those with written menus and waiters -- there will be a dish called keshy yena. It is a casserole of chicken and edam cheese that hints of Latin American origins along with the more obvious Dutch and Indonesian.

We have learned to be defensive about American influence in the Caribbean islands, but on Bonaire we need not cringe. The U.S. impact is not overbearingly big-business imperialist. The cars are Japanese, the soft drinks Latin. The American touches are more -- I know this is hard to believe -- charming. While hamburgers are regulars on the hotel lunch menus, there are no fast-food stands. One immigrant from the U.S. makes bagels on Bonaire. Another woman makes New York cheesecakes. A couple from Long Island have taken over the restaurant at Don's Habitat, and serves Italian food New York style. The best thing I found on the Flamingo Beach Hotel's lunch menu was a Philadelphia Cheesesteak Hoagie, complete with fried onions and mushrooms, on a crusty, chewy roll that would make even a Philadelphian proud. American culinary influences here are ones to be admired.

Islanders on Bonaire, like those on its bigger sister islands, Curacao and Aruba, speak several languages: Papiamentu, Dutch, Spanish and English, in that order. And their food reflects their linguistics. American influence has its place down among the novelties, a bakery product here and a sandwich there. Refreshing rather than overwhelming.

Tabletalk It sounds like the total-trend restaurant: The Spiral Stair in Charleston, S.C., promises a raw bar, sushi bar and video sports bar.

Despite proliferating health clubs, there are signs the exercise habit is losing ground. The Angus Bar in Raleigh, N.C., has acquired a golf cart to carry diners from the parking lot to the front door of the restaurant. From there, I assume, they are on their own.

KESHY YENA (6 to 8 servings)

2 tablespoons oil

2 tablespoons butter

3 1/2-pound frying chicken, cut up

2 onions, chopped

2 green bell peppers, chopped

1 green chile pepper, minced

1 tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped

3 tablespoons raisins

6 green olives, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup tomato pure'e

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

2 pounds edam cheese

Heat oil and butter in a large skillet and saute' chicken until lightly browned. Cover, lower heat and cook another 15 to 20 minutes until chicken pieces are cooked through.

Remove chicken from skillet and in the remaining fat saute' onions and peppers until tender. Add tomato, raisins and olives and simmer 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add tomato pure'e and bread crumbs, and cook another minute. Set aside.

Remove skin and bones from chicken and chop or shred the meat. Add chicken to the skillet and stir well.

Peel any wax covering off edam cheese and slice cheese thinly. Grease a 3-quart casserole or individual casseroles and line with slices of cheese, overlapping them. Pour in chicken mixture and cover with remaining slices of cheese. Bake at 350 degrees, 30 minutes for large casserole or 15 to 20 minutes for small casseroles. Serve hot.

Note: For a more grand presentation, peel a whole round edam cheese, cut a 1-inch slice from the top and scoop out the center, leaving a shell about 1/2 inch thick. Soak the cheese shell and top slice in cold water to cover, for one hour. Drain cheese, then stuff with the chicken mixture, cover with the top slice, and bake in a greased casserole for a half hour, slice into wedges and serve.

1987, Washington Post Writers Group